It may be hibernation season in the animal kingdom – but for us humans, the lead-up to Christmas can take a toll on our sleep.
Here, experts talk through some common winter sleep-sapping culprits, and what to do about them…
Lack of daylight
Feeling more exhausted than usual since the days became shorter? “The main reason for this is that a lack of natural daylight stops a part of the brain (hypothalamus) from working properly. This impacts melatonin (the hormone which makes you sleepy) as well as the body’s circadian rhythm (internal clock), which delays the sleep cycle, sapping your energy and making you feel groggy and tired,” explains Alison Jones, sleep expert at Sealy UK.
On top of this, we may spend less time outdoors and move less, further adding to our energy slumps.
Sleep-saving solution: “It’s important to make a habit of spending ample time outdoors during the daylight hours,” suggests Jones. “Researchers have advised that spending even a small amount of time outdoors, away from artificial light, can have a positive effect on your sleep schedule, enabling your body to align to the natural light pattern.
“In order to remain healthy, happy and well-rested, make sure to maintain regular physical activity,” she adds. “This is especially important during the day as more exposure to daylight will keep your body’s circadian rhythm synchronised, which will also improve your mood and energy levels.”
Higher alcohol intake
It can be all too easy to consume a bit more booze than normal during the festivities (eggnog, anyone?).
Jones says: “Many people are unaware that having just one or two drinks is enough for your sleep to suffer. There are many reasons for this, including disruption to your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
“It is true alcohol can help you get to sleep, however the effect it has on your body for the rest of the night is much more detrimental. You will be thrown into a deep sleep far quicker than usual. But when the alcohol starts to wear off, so does its sedative effects. This results in a lighter, less restful sleep, meaning you will wake up earlier and struggle to get back to sleep.
“In addition, alcohol is a diuretic, acting on the kidneys to make you urinate more fluid than you take in, which could lead to a restless night. Going to bed even slightly dehydrated can also lead to disruptive snoring due to a drier mouth.”
Sleep-saving solution: Jones says: “Reducing your alcohol consumption will make it much more likely that your natural circadian rhythms will work as they should. Alternating alcoholic drinks with water can help balance out these effects and limit the number of units you consume, meaning you will have a much more restful night’s sleep. Likewise, leaving two to three hours between your last drink and your bedtime will give your body time to process the alcohol you’ve already consumed.”
All the tasty food is one of the joys of the season. But consuming more rich food than usual may result in heartburn and indigestion, leading to restless nights.
“Some high-fat, high-salt foods common in party foods and processed snacks can stimulate your stomach to produce more acid, which can contribute to heartburn and make it harder for us to digest food,” explains Dr Jenna Macciochi, immunologist and head of innovation at collagen supplement brand Ancient + Brave.
“Certain rich foods can alter the gut transit time, which can cause us to feel a bit ‘backed-up’,” she adds. “What’s more, we tend to eat more during the festive season, and we often eat later than usual, which doesn’t allow the body enough time to properly digest the food before lying down. The horizontal position makes it easier for stomach acid to flow back into the oesophagus, causing heartburn and digestive discomfort, and disrupting sleep.”
Sleep-saving solution: If heartburn and indigestion are ongoing issues for you, it’s a good idea to check in with your GP. But if you’re simply aware that big, rich meals and eating late can trigger discomfort, Macciochi suggests: “Start by bringing awareness to the frequency of meals and snacks containing these rich foods that trigger symptoms and try to slowly reduce, make more mindful choices and incorporate healthier options. Try to eat until 70% full, avoid eating too late, and avoid mixing rich food with alcohol.” A short walk after eating could also help.
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying Christmas can also bring extra stress.
“The busy festive period often brings changes to our routines, whether that’s from pre-Christmas work burnout or more social plans than usual, which can lead to late nights and higher alcohol intake than we’re used to. We also may feel more stress and anxiety caused by family issues, juggling childcare in the school holidays, and the financial pressures of the Christmas bills,” says Karen Innes, new product development manager at Slumberdown.
“All of this can see the quality and duration of our sleep suffer. If you’re finding it hard to drift off to sleep, waking regularly in the night, or if it’s much harder to get out of bed in the morning than usual, it’s likely your sleep is being affected.”
Sleep-saving solution: The first step is to recognise when stress is taking a toll – then think about small steps you can take to help. For example, Innes suggests: “If work stress is causing you to be in front of a screen until late at night, set yourself a curfew to shut off your screen at least 30 minutes to one hour before you want to be asleep.”
Be realistic about what you can fit in and say no when you need to – and remember Christmas doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’. Little things, like getting out for daily walks, even if it’s just 10 or 20 minutes, will make a difference, too. And if your mind is still whirring when you get into bed, try creating a relaxing wind-down routine (a bath, a breathing or meditation session, a calming book or podcast with a sleepy tea…).
Between work parties and festive get-togethers, our social calendars can fill up at this time of year. “Whilst it’s normal to make the most of the festivities, too many social gatherings may impact your sleep routine, making you feel lethargic and fatigued the next day,” says Jones.
Sleep-saving solution: “By balancing nights out with more low-key nights in, you’ll be able to stay energised and revitalised for the busy weeks to come,” suggests Jones. “After a night of celebrations, the brain can stay active for a while, so falling asleep will be a lot easier if you have the ultimate cosy yet comfortable sleep environment,” she adds.
“A mattress which suits your body’s individual needs is key. Likewise, ensure your room is not too hot or too cold for the best slumber, around 15-20 degrees Celsius is the optimal temperature.”